Towards a history of the Victorian Turkish bath:
a preliminary review of some of the available sources

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2. David Urquhart & the birth of the Victorian Turkish bath

The Scottish diplomat David Urquhart (1805-77), a man with a gift for quickly absorbing the minutiae of complicated legal documents, sometime mp for Stafford, obsessional Russophobe and Turkophile, charismatic campaigner, and believer in the need for honesty and morality in politics, is virtually forgotten today.

Most of his adult life was spent fighting for causes which, in the final analysis, he lost. However, the manner in which he fought was frequently effective and often, incidentally, helped to develop the capabilities of many of his political disciples—as when, for example, Charles Bartholomew skillfully used the Socratic method in a booklet advertising his Turkish baths.

But it seems that unless politicians are successful, or fail outrageously, posterity is condemned to read of them only in footnotes or occasional one-off articles.

The forgotten diplomat

There is no shortage of dismissive footnotes. G D H Cole, for example, remarked that Urquhart’s belief that the Chartists’ march on Newport (1839) was ‘fomented by Russian agents,’ was ‘the fantasy of a disordered mind.’ Callinicos referred to him as the eccentric Tory mp who formed a ‘rather dubious alliance’ with Karl Marx.

Others have been kinder. While not glossing over his failings, Briggs admired the manner in which Urquhart educated the working men whom he organised into his Foreign Affairs Committees (facs), those groups which Shannon treats as prime exponents of the exertion of ‘pressure from without,’ and of which Jenks has made a most detailed and useful study. Further praise for this popular maverick politician came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from A J P Taylor, who might well be described as a popular maverick historian. Taylor saw him as one of the troublemakers whose dissent over foreign policy was to be praised, who should not be lightly dismissed, and whom he most revered. He wrote that if he had been a contemporary, he hoped that he would have shared their outlook and that he would ‘not have been ashamed to have made their mistakes.’

But even a commentator disposed to favour his activities had in all honesty to admit that:

Lack of restraint undoubtedly ruined Urquhart’s career as a diplomat. He never understood that a responsible government could not afford to pursue the same kind of policy as an irresponsible individual.

Fascinating and diverse though Urquhart’s life was, the only full-length account is a hagiography by the unknown Gertrude Robinson (a friend of one of his daughters) who tended to see much of his life in terms of her own Roman Catholicism, a religion to which Urquhart was often sympathetic but to which (contrary to the views of more than one present-day writer) he was not inclined to convert.

Two reference works summarise the basic facts of Urquhart’s life: A five-column entry in the Oxford Dictionary of national biography outlines his formal diplomatic and political career—he served, briefly, as a secretary at the British consulate in Constantinople and, for a slightly longer period, as mp for Stafford; information on his political campaigns and on the Foreign Affairs Committees is to be found in a more recent biographical work on modern British radicals. Both these sources, incidentally, mistakenly state that Urquhart had only two sons and two daughters, omitting mention of another son, William, who died at the age of thirteen months.

On 5 Sept 1854, he had married Harriet, sister of the mp Chichester Fortescue. She was a strong personality in her own right and, thereafter, was an equal partner in all his work. Some of the more personal gaps in Robinson’s account can be filled by a posthumous memoir of Harriet by her friend Maria Bishop. Further interesting sidelights can be found in … and Mr Fortescue, a most informatively edited selection of entries from the diaries of Chichester Fortescue.

The Pillars of Hercules

At the end of the 1840s, Urquhart wrote The Pillars of Hercules about his travels in Morocco and Spain. In it he vividly described the Moorish baths he encountered there. He prefaced this with a description of ‘the bath as it is used by the Turks, which, as more complete and detailed, is more intelligible.’

Urquhart was a lifelong sufferer from neuralgia and in the heat of the Turkish bath he found, for the first time, some relief from the severe pain to which he was so frequently subjected. He was nothing if not a proselytiser, and into this idiosyncratic travel book of variable quality he placed a chapter on the bath which was to have a considerable impact in his own country where most people still had only the most primitive washing facilities. He was himself in no doubt of its importance, writing that it was,

a chapter which, if the reader will peruse it with diligence and apply with care, may prolong his life, fortify his body, diminish his ailments, augment his enjoyments, and improve his temper: then having found something beneficial to himself, he may be prompted to do something to secure the like for his fellow-creatures.

Urquhart was not, in fact, the first to write of the Turkish bath around this time. Thackeray had amusingly described it in 1844. Dr Richard Robert Madden, who was later to have an acrimonious dispute with Dr Barter, had published an account of his travels in Turkey, Egypt, Nubia and Palestine some twenty years earlier, but his own description of Middle Eastern hammams had not been as widely noticed, nor as influential, as The Pillars of Hercules.

A chapter on the Islamic bath, complete with plan and description of bathing procedures, was included in the Arabic scholar Edward William Lane’s book on contemporary Egyptian life, published in 1836.

Strictures on the personal cleanliness of the English

But Urquhart’s most astonishing precursor was the unknown author of Strictures on the personal cleanliness of the English. He published the work himself in 1828 as from London, although it was printed (and probably written) in Pisa. The author, clearly well-travelled, had tried in 1818 to interest George III in his subject. His plan had been,

to erect baths at the expense of government in different parts of London, after the manner of the Roman thermæ, publicly endowed like hospitals for the use of the people.

Urquhart does not mention having read Strictures, but a number of points which he makes bear a distinct resemblance to those made in the earlier work. On the other hand, Strictures includes a plan and full description of the Turkish bath which its author had found in 1822 in a private house in Tripoli (at that time in Syria, but at present in Lebanon). If Urquhart had seen this, then his own first experimental bath would surely have been more successful. It may, of course, have been that the unknown author and Urquhart had both seen an earlier unrecorded book.

Strictures is better argued and more readable than Urquhart’s Pillars. It is forthright and outspoken on the subject of personal cleanliness, has chapters on public, domestic, Turkish, and Roman baths, and yet seems to have had no impact at all. But then, as a later commentator was to write, the anonymous author ‘was not so fortunate as to find a Dr Barter to give practical effect to his suggestions.’

This page revised and reformatted 02 January 2023

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David Urquhart, aged about 69

Urquhart's nightmare

Plan of domestic baths in a private house in Tripoli in 1822

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